Composing In The Gaming World
The artistry of the gaming world consists of more than what meets the eye or ears in this case. Since ‘99, Chris Rickwood has been making waves in the industry, working on some iconic titles we know and love, including Evil Dead: Hail to the King, BloodRayne, and Maximo: Ghosts to Glory. Raised on arcade games, it is no surprise that the world of Gaming captivated Rickwood. With a bachelors in music theory and a masters in music composition, he was originally set to be a film composer. While films remained a point of interest, Gaming offered a mysterious and uncharted territory.
At the time, music in games was not what we know the industry to be currently. Everything started on the computer instead of live recorded orchestras or the limitless options tech now provides us. Computer chips played the music. It was a path with plenty of room for growth and the option to pave your own way. “[It] seems more interesting, more cutting edge and, almost punk rock because nobody was doing it or it wasn't mainstream,” says Rickwood about that time.
The internet was still pretty new, and the tech bubble and Y2K were all the rage. “There was no precedence of how to break into the game industry, music for games was still so young that there was definitely no books. There were just no resources on how to do it. So it was scary in a way where it was exciting.” Rickwood’s introduction to Gaming came in grad school. “While reading an article about music and games, he stumbled upon the addresses of big audio directors at the time for SEGA and EA looking for composers and their demos. Rickwood’s writing gave him a strong start, but his production was not as polished. “It's not like I was going to recording studios. It was the early sound cards, like basically making all my music.”
With a call back from Tommy Tallarico, lead composer of the Evil Dead game, Rickwood showed his skills were strong enough to land him his first dream role on Evil Dead. The position allowed him to move from working on early sound cards to a live orchestra. “It was kind of a legitimizer of my career,” said Rickwood. Working with the Budapest Orchestra for Evil Dead provided Rickwood with the necessary experience to move forward. The ability to use a live orchestra has become almost standard for game composers. Although our computers are no longer the setback, they may have been. Sample technology has progressed immensely. “You can get a pretty realistic sounding orchestra or really any kind of genre of music out of a computer using sample technology.” Rickwood says, “It's kind of raised the level of what you need to do to stand out.”
With many companies offering vast music libraries, standing out can seem impossible, but there is a benefit to immense collections. With Rickwood, the ability to have his work in music libraries has allowed him to hear his music in various mediums. From mobile and flash games to licenses for TV, his music has taken the stage in our lives in a plethora of ways. More of his music was released on Associated Production Music’s Endgame Music Library and has been placed in television broadcasts for ABC Family, G4TV, and Fox.
In 2006, Rickwood worked with APM, a music production company. APM offered a music library featuring composers of all mediums. During this time, the "NFL Monday Night Football" theme needed a revamp from its previous John Pearson version. The goal was to take the famous theme song and modernize it. Through his work with APM, Rickwood was asked to provide a demo for the pitch.
“It was like a cattle call of proposals,” says Rickwood. He knew this would be a big deal and sent his demo. The studio came down to three finalists and even requested a second demo from the participants. Through the mix of excitement and nervousness, Rickwood composed a second demo and went on to be a co-winner of the project. The studio decided to combine Rickwood’s demo with the demo of another contestant to create the theme. You can hear Rickwood’s voice in the music as he makes calls when listening to the song. Almost a year after the recording, the news of his pitch win was revealed to the public, thus setting him on a journey to work on more sports themed games such as EA Madden NFL.
After 20 years in the industry, Rickwood has seen it all. When asked what most excites him about the industry at its current state, he says,” I think what excites me is again, the limitless technology available. You can do anything because the technology is there.” Having spent a lot of time on multiplayer games, including many esports and competition-based games, he notices a trend in players turning off the audio at times to focus, especially at the pro level. Still, when done right, he says, “It gets you excited.” Using music as a driving force to storytelling, Rickwood is now focusing on more narrative-based games. He says, “ I'm excited about finding those games. And those are the games I enjoy playing too.”
While his first project was scary and uncharted territory, Rickwood has reached a point of fearlessness in his career. “When you don't know how to do something, you dive deep into it and get lost figuring it out.” When creating his first solo Xbox game, Circle of Doom, he felt those initial fears of taking on a score on his own and not wanting to screw up. That project was being created by a company whose president flew from Korea to meet with Rickwood before he got the gig. They wanted to see his studio. Rickwood says, “It was in the basement of my house. It was not anywhere close to looking like a studio. It was an unfinished basement with a computer and some speakers. [the president of the company] looked at my studio, [I] played a couple of tracks for them, and then we signed the contracts.” The president of the company told Rickwood, “This is how much music means to us.”
That was a scary time for Rickwood, but now he says, “I reached a point to where I wasn't scared of projects, and that flattens you out creatively if you're not scared of what you're doing. So I'm searching for those kinds of projects where it's like the huge triple-A games.” Those big budget games with IP Holders like Disney, Sony, etc., are creating the excitement of the unknown for Rickwood.
“There's no denying the technology is kind of not the bottleneck anymore.” Audio can now be created in real-time. It is faster and cheaper than before, so there are no more excuses. “Your creativity is unlimited by the technology,” says Rickwood. Audio composers are striving to evolve their creativity and push their artistry to utilize the power of technology. The words the sky is the limit is proving to be true. As the gaming industry, in general, has become more mature, there is a shift to the market. Similar to film, you can see a divide between the mainstream vs. indie markets. Before the punk rock element of Gaming allowed creators to push the boundaries of their vision on a limited budget. Today we can see Gaming falling in line with more Hollywoodesque standards and the budget to match.
With the demand for games holding steady throughout the pandemic, “It was almost good for the game industry because people were paying attention to entertainment,” says Rickwood. In the world of audio composing, working from home is not a new concept. Audio composers have often been met with the flexibility of a nontraditional workplace. When COVID-19 first took over our headlines, the thirst for entertainment grew. What was once a coveted benefit of the industry has now become mainstream. The difference between an in-house audio team versus a remote one is diminishing. While the face-to-face element of the workplace is quickly becoming a standard of the past, Rickwood says. “I hope the result of this will be more of an acceptance of working with remote teams.”
There is no doubt that music in games will continue to evolve. Building the excitement of competition and pushing storytelling to new heights, we are sure to see Rickwood and other composers push the boundaries of their artistry.